Around Europe: Barcelona, Real set for Clásico; Wenger's perspective
Another dramatic weekend in Europe saw Neymar score another wonder-goal as Barcelona took advantage of Real Madrid’s defeat in Seville. There’s more pressure on Jose Mourinho after another Chelsea loss (although Mourinho himself missed the match while serving a suspension), while Arsene Wenger came off all philosophical on North London derby day.
In other derbies across the continent, there were wins for Borussia Dortmund (over Schalke), Lyon (over Saint-Etienne) and Roma (over Lazio).
Here is what else caught our eye this weekend Around Europe:
Barcelona, Real Madrid enter Clásico on opposite paths
It says something that Real Madrid’s best player this season has been goalkeeper Keylor Navas. The Spanish giant has been struggling with injuries to its attacking stars, with Gareth Bale (five starts), Karim Benzema (six starts) and James Rodriguez (one start) all missing from Sunday’s lineup at Sevilla.
So how much of a surprise was it that Sevilla, which beat Barcelona at home last month, recovered from conceding an early goal to win 3-2? Not only that, but the scoreline flattered the visitor (which was without Navas in goal): Madrid had plenty of shots on goal, but Sevilla was exceptional, attacking in numbers and taking advantage of Madrid’s lethargy.
Coach Rafa Benitez pointed to his side’s superior shot count and decent first half hour, but that was all he could cling to. The attacking players did not defend from the front and once again, Cristiano Ronaldo drew a blank and looked a frustrated figure. For a normal player, it may not be so bad, but Ronaldo has only scored in four of 11 La Liga games this season. Is this the onset of his decline, or the start of a long goodbye from the Spanish capital?
This performance comes off the back of one of Madrid’s poorest of the season, the rather fluky 1-0 win over PSG. And its next game after the international break is against Barcelona, which once again showed how to cope without Lionel Messi with a Luis Suarez-Neymar masterclass in a tough fixture against Villarreal. Barcelona won 3-0 in probably its best display of the season.
So it will be a tense 12 days before El Clásico. While Barca boss Luis Enrique refused to commit on whether Messi would make the game (reports suggest he will not), Benitez has more concerns: will Bale and Sergio Ramos, who went off after injuring his shoulder after scoring a superb scissor kick, be fit? Will James, who came on and scored an excellent goal that he created for himself, play for Colombia this week and potentially jeopardize his availability? And can Benitez rediscover Ronaldo’s mojo? The Clásico build-up starts now.
One man who won't be in Spain when the game kicks off will be David Moyes, who was sacked Monday after Real Sociedad slipped into the drop-zone after losing to Las Palmas. Whatever you think of his original appointment 12 months ago and the fact something hasn't worked–whether it’s his style of football, struggles with the language, complaints about ‘soft referees’, the signings that he moaned ‘were made for him’, or his inability to get the best out of Carlos Vela, Sergio Canales or Ruben Pardo–it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for the Scot.
He found out about his departure from Manchester United via the press, and the same seemed likely at Real Sociedad. He was in England this weekend, due to fly back Sunday night to be given the news. But he missed his flight, the Spanish press reported that Eusebio, ex-Barcelona B coach, would replace him; and at time of writing, he still hadn’t been officially told.
It’s hardly the most professional way to handle a delicate situation.
Does Wenger get the respect he deserves?
There are still some Arsenal fans who think Arsene Wenger should leave before the end of his contract in 2017. Their argument is that he holds the club back and having sole control of recruitment and other areas prevents a more bullish approach that might have seen Arsenal sign an outfield player last summer. As it was, it was the only club in Europe’s top five leagues that didn't. (Given its current injury record, no different to those of previous seasons, maybe it was an error.)
And yet, any football fan that read Wenger’s fascinating interview with French journalist Erik Bielderman in Sport & Style, L’Equipe’s smart Saturday supplement magazine, would want Wenger in charge of his or her club.
The Frenchman is a true thinker who admits he is an obsessive who learned about humility in victory from his time coaching in Japan. He could never coach an individual in sport, is constantly looking to unlock "the beauty of man" in his teams’ football and comes across as a true romantic who fears the onset of time, is in denial about his future after football, and who puts consistency and patience ahead of results. A transcript of the interview in English is here.
Arsenal may have been second best in Sunday’s 1-1 draw at home to Tottenham, but Wenger showed he has a pragmatic side as well: he withdrew Santi Cazorla at halftime, asking Mathieu Flamini to beef up the midfield. Another substitute, Kieran Gibbs, a right back playing at left wing, scored the equalizer.
Meanwhile Chelsea lost again, this time at a steadily-improving Stoke, and you can’t avoid a comparison between the two coaches: Wenger will leave Arsenal in super shape, even if his is an impossible act to follow.
Mourinho? Well, he left Porto, Inter and Real Madrid in a state of chaos in previous jobs. He may yet do the same at Chelsea, although the official line is that the board is backing him and Mourinho thinks he will see out his four-year deal. Talk of the dynasties and legacies that peppered Mourinho’s press conferences in the summer has been thin on the ground of late. Mourinho may still last the season, but it would be a surprise if he’s still in charge next season barring an uptick in fortune.
Who would have thought Wenger would outlast him in the Premier League twice?
Penalty controversy in Rome
Usually, when a foul is committed outside the area, it's not a penalty. But that wasn’t the case in the Roman derby, when Roma was gifted an early lead after Santiago Gentiletti tripped Edin Dzeko just outside the box. Referee Paolo Tagliavento pointed to the spot and Dzeko made no mistake to put Roma ahead over Lazio.
“Conceding the penalty so early changed the entire course of the game,” Gentiletti said after the game. “I immediately admitted to the referee that I had committed a foul but that it was outside the area. He was convinced it was a penalty though despite being behind the play and his assistants having a better view of the incident.”
Gervinho continued his electric form this season and added a second, his sixth of the campaign, to seal a 2-0 win. His summer flirtation with Al-Jazira, from whom he reportedly asked for a helicopter and a private beach, seems a long time ago now.
The result means it’s as-you-are at the top of Serie A, with Inter winning 1-0 again, at Torino, and Fiorentina playing well in a 2-0 win at Sampdoria. They are one point clear of Roma and one point further back is Napoli, which beat Udinese. At the end of this month, Napoli hosts Inter, and given Napoli’s record against the bigger clubs, it could win it. The problem is that Napoli excels against sides that take the action to it and struggles to break down teams that sit back (see 0-0 with Carpi). Roberto Mancini’s Inter is somewhere between the two, but having won seven of 12 games 1-0, while impressive, is not exactly dominant.
Tuchel turns it around for Dortmund
Borussia Dortmund won the Ruhr derby against Schalke 3-2 to continue its impressive run under new coach Thomas Tuchel. BVB has already scored 71 goals this season in 22 games across all competitions, and is on a run of 32 games straight in which it has scored. The match-winner was scored by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who now has eight in his last five games and 14 in 12 for the season and is challenging Robert Lewandowski for Bundesliga and Europe’s top scorer this season.
Tuchel has not exactly carried on from where Jurgen Klopp left off, but he has taken some players who were struggling under Klopp and reversed their form: Shinji Kagawa is back to his 2012-title-winning best; Henrikh Mkhitaryan is in the form of his life; and Matthias Ginter, re-invented at right back, now looks like a €10 million bargain rather than last season’s bust. Dortmund is unlikely to challenge Bayern for the title, but is giving it a decent go.
Over in Munich, there was a routine 4-0 win for Bayern as Pep Guardiola’s side takes the German champion to new heights every week. If the chances of Pep staying beyond this season were 50-50 in the summer, right now they are greater than that. Bayern is loving its football right now and the players are desperate for their coach to stay. It all points to Pep extending for one more year, which will of course give him two chances to win the Champions League. At the moment, though, no one is saying that he has to win one. They’re enjoying the football too much for that.
Lacazette responds to France omission
Alexandre Lacazette was not named in the France squad for this week’s friendlies against Germany and England. Last season’s top scorer has endured a horrible season so far, not helped by club president Jean-Michel Aulas saying of the striker’s new contract that he was paying four times more in wages but not getting the performances.
Well, he did Sunday, as Lacazette scored a hat trick in Lyon’s 3-0 derby win over Saint-Etienne, its last derby at Stade Gerland (Lyon moves into a new stadium in January). Lacazette was top scorer in Ligue 1 last season and has been linked with a January move to Manchester City and Arsenal. One of the reasons he stayed at Lyon last summer was to cement his place in the France squad for 2016. The latest omission is a blow: now he needs to play his way back into Decshamps’s plans in time for the March friendlies. And for that to happen, he is best off seeing the season out at Lyon.
Top three players of the week
Yevhen Konoplyanka (Sevilla)
The only member of the Ukraine national team who plays abroad, Konoplyanka led Madrid’s defense in a merry dance in Sevilla’s 3-2 win.
Salomon Kalou (Hertha Berlin)
Kalou bagged a hat trick for high-flying Hertha, which moves up to fourth after beating Hannover 3-1. The ex-Chelsea striker now has seven goals in 10 games on the season. If only his former club had someone that prolific!
Gianluigi Donnarumma (Milan)
The 16-year-old goalkeeper continued his unbeaten run in goal with a string of outstanding saves in the goalless draw against Atalanta. If coach Sinisa Mihajlovic wanted to make a point about his defense in the early part of the season, he has done it now.
Top three goals of the week
Inaki Williams (Athletic Bilbao)
Matt Le Tissier was the first player to be honored in Athletic Bilbao’s Hall of Fame last summer and this flick-and-volley from Williams, his fifth in a week, had a hint of the former Southampton stroller.
Anything Williams can do, Neymar can do better; not only does the Brazilian flick the ball over a defender, but he spins 360 degrees before smashing him home. Never mind Le Tissier: Marca said it "had the mark of Pele about it." He probably won’t get the votes for it, but it's hard to argue that he’s currently below Ronaldo in Ballon D’Or terms.
Kenny Lala (Lens)
The last minute of a Ligue 2 game at Auxerre, with the score at 1-1, and Lala, a defender, does this from the center circle. A decent way to win any game.